The founders of famed Innovative Dining Group celebrate a milestone by opening up a slew of new hotspots
Written by Constance Dunn | Photography Courtesy of Innovative Dining Group
It was the mid 1990s, and Lee Maen and Craig Katz were successful Hollywood nightclub promoters who decided to open a place of their own in league with club owner Phillip Cummins. The result was a slew of hit-making dining spots that established a new category of see-and-be-seen restaurants in Los Angeles. Nearly 20 years later, the trio is still together, partners at Innovative Dining Group (IDG), where they’re forging new paths into markets far removed from their native market.
“We decided that restaurants were the next obvious choice for us, given everything we had learned and what we could bring to the table,” recounts Maen. In 1997, the group opened up the first Sushi Roku, which jump-started the L.A. dining scene with its ultra-glam decor, celeb-studded clientele and emphasis on specialty cocktails and sushi, two trends quickly catching fire.
When they brought aboard Michael Cardenas, then general manager at acclaimed Japanese restaurant Matsuhisa, the rest was history. “We were able to fill it because we knew everyone in town. We were a success from day one,” says Maen. Next came BOA and Katana. In 2001, the group reconfigured the traditional steakhouse concept with BOA Hollywood, and a year later they produced Asian-fusion haunt Katana, both on Sunset Strip. The group then replicated these individual brands at various different locations—including a concept or two that didn’t quite work out—from Las Vegas and Scottsdale to Santa Monica. Then, in 2013, they struck out internationally, starting with BOA in Abu Dhabi.
EXPANSION AND ESCAPISM
Now worth more than $70 million, and with 15 restaurants currently in operation, IDG seems to have hit a new level of energy, and is opening a slew of restaurants in new markets to commemorate their upcoming 20-year anniversary. “We’re still hungry, and we have a lot to do,” says Maen, “and we still haven’t taken over in a lot of places we want to.” Katana just recently opened in Dubai, and there’s a Chicago branch in the works, too. BOA Tokyo is a distinct possibility, and Maen says New York has always been a goal for the group.
Was all this what they envisioned 20 years ago? “Our plan was to go in the restaurant business to build more restaurants,” says Maen, who maintains they didn’t have a rigid blueprint mapped out at the beginning. “We kind of adapted as we went. We’ve definitely made our mistakes, and definitely lost focus at times, and [have] done things maybe we shouldn’t have—but we are where we are right now because we have made more right decisions than wrong.”
How does one consistently make the ‘right’ decisions in hospitality, where the most successful players must perform at an A-game level when it comes to food and beverage, design and staffing, all to continue capturing the hearts and funds of the public?
For the fellows at IDG, it’s about getting all these right, plus having a keen and persistent understanding of what your true offering is. And in this case, the value proposition is an emotional one. “You’re supposed to escape when you come to our restaurants,” states Maen. “Whether you come there for a business meeting or you’re there for an anniversary, or a first date or just with your friends.”
Which brings us back to where the group began.
“You learn this from the nightclub business,” says Maen, pointing out that today’s major hospitality stars—Ian Schrager, André Balazs, Sean MacPherson—all started in the nightclub business, where success is about putting on a good show. “The nightclub guys get how to turn people on and get them excited.” Which for Maen and company means, “It’s showtime when we open the doors.”